Excitement filled the air as the ferry pulled into Beppu port. Blue skies, calm winds, and the final unscaled Hyakumeizan in Kyushu lie just over the hills in the southern part of Oita Prefecture. Kanako and I jumped on a train bound for Taketa station, where a taxi happily drove us to Kamihara, a collection of decrepit houses marking the entrance to the northern face of our target peak.
Mt. Sobo, or grandfather mountain as the Chinese characters imply, is hardly an old man’s peak, rising abruptly over 1000 vertical meters from our present vantage point. Little did we know what other obstacles the old man was about to unload on the unprepared explorers. First, there was the stifling humidity of a July in the southern island. We were still on the cusp of the rainy season, with gallons of sweat rolling off our weary bodies. By the time we reached the unmanned hut at the 5th stagepoint, a change of clothing was in order. We rang out our drenched shirts in the thick air, replenishing our lost fluids with H2O from a neighboring water source. After a leisurely break, we regained the will to gear up once again and crawl up towards the ridge line.
It was in this next stretch of trail where my lexical knowledge was abruptly expanded. Swarms of black, bee-like flies hovered over our stenched torsos, attacking any exposed skin with unreserved vengeance. Yes, the almighty Japanese abu. Horseflies are surprisingly scarce in the mountains of Kansai, but they reign supreme in the forested peaks of Kyushu. Kanako and I pushed on, despite desperately needing a rest from the excruciatingly steep slog. Every time we stopped the flies would inflict their painful blood-sucking bites.
Alas, we somehow managed to reach Kunimi-toge, where the foundation of a rather large hut lie concealed under an overgrown lawn. The map had this place marked as a campsite, but with no reliable water source and the abundance of abu, we had no choice but to push on. The thick cedar forests gave way to native flora in the form of tall bamboo grass, which thankfully kept the horseflies at bay. We could finally slow up our pace, admiring the lush greenery under the deciduous canopy. After a handful of ups-and-downs Kanako and I reached the emergency hut at the 9th stagepoint. Dropping my incredibly heavy pack, I washed my face at the nearby stream, sucking handfuls of the crystalline water deep into my abdomen. Kanako collapsed on the stone bench, while I assessed the situation. Even though I’d brought the tent, we had a free roof over our heads and no one else around to bother us. Even the hut warden was away, leaving an honesty box to put the modest hut fee in. Life was good.
Lunch was cooked and devoured before we raced up to the rocky summit of Mt. Sobo. The sun shined brightly while the surrounding peaks were covered in thickening cloud. The haze concealed Mt. Kuju, the highest peak of Kyushu but at least we weren’t sitting in a world of white. Kanako took a nap while I observed the butterflies sunning themselves on the rocks.
Over an hour we spend on that bald summit, soaking in the sounds and feelings of nature. We seriously considered bivvying directly on top but had no extra energy to drag the gear up from the hut below. Eventually we slithered back our awaiting kit, trying to make that all-important decision of where to sleep. “I want to sleep outside,” demanded Kanako, deeming the hut too dank for her taste. Indeed a strong musty odor wafted from the worn blankets, and the lack of ventilation was disconcerting. Studying the map, I found a campsite marked at Miyahara, a 45-minute walk from our current position. The boss nodded in the affirmative when I offered this alternative.
Heavy gear on once again, we dropped down the steep trail, away from the comforts of the hut. It was already approaching 5pm, and the winds had picked up quite significantly. Suddenly, as if on cue, a rumbling sound rose forth from behind. Was that thunder I just heard? I turned 90 degrees, noticing the black clouds rolling over the lofty peaks of Sobo. Our lazy stroll was abandoned in favor of a hearty trot, as the tempest was likely to overtake us at any moment. The rumbles grew louder and louder, just as we reached the 3-way junction our of intended goal. Here, directly in the center of the trail, lay a flat area no wider than one tent width. Whether this were the official campsite or not I would never know, but it looked heavenly by our standards. I literally ripped the tent out of my pack, setting up camp in just the nick of time.
Kanako and I crawled in, while the rain poured violently all around us, a reminder that the rainy season had yet to release its grip on the archipelago. “Perhaps we should’ve stayed in that hut after all,” I chuckled to my startled companion. The rain let up after an hour or so, allowing us a chance to fire up the stove and cook a quick meal.
The next morning, the cloud lay thick all around, as we broke down camp and traversed down to the bus stop at Obira. Mt. Sobo had put up one heck of a fight, but victory was ours. With the Hyakumeizan of Kyushu safely knocked off, I turned my attention to the remaining 70 summits on Fukada’s list. Perhaps this was going to take much more time that initially anticipated.